Does My Blog Look Big in This?

31 Oct

I get lots of lovely comments about the design of my blog and while I always welcome praise, warranted or not, I do try to point out that it was actually Word Press who did all the designing. I use a free theme – Bueno – and WP features that are available to all, for free. The only thing I pay for is the domain name upgrade that gives me “catherineryanhoward.com” instead of “catherineryanhoward.wordpress.com”. But by following a few simple rules and using my imagination, I ended up with a blog that some people think has been professionally designed especially for me. So what do I do with WP that (from what I’ve seen, at least) most other people don’t?

My Header Picture Matches My Theme

Pick a theme that allows you to insert a photo of your choosing across the top of your blog, i.e. a header image. Most of them do. Then when it comes to inserting one, choose a photo that color co-ordinates with your theme, as well as reflecting what your blog is about.

Not quite the same, is it?

This one simple step can radically improve the look of your homepage, so take the time the find the perfect image – browse stock photo websites or even take one yourself. Some themes also enable you to change the color scheme (under Theme Options) if you want to give yourself more to work with.

I Use Pages to Build a Blogsite

A blogsite is a blog that acts like a website. One of my pet peeves is when I see authors – famous, traditionally published authors included – with a website about themselves and an entirely separate blog in a different location. How many hoops do you want people to jump through, eh? Instead, you should get a Word Press blog and make it look like a website, so you can have a one-stop-shop online home.

WP allows you to insert “Pages” – static sections that exist outside of your blog posts. All you need to do to insert one is to find Pages on your Dashboard, click “Add New” and build your new page or section. Whatever you call it will complete the URL, e.g. if I make a “Contact” page, its URL will be http://catherineryanhoward.com/contact. You can also create a hierarchy of pages. For example, I have a “My Books” page (http://catherineryanhoward.com/mybooks) but under that again, I have a page for Results Not Typical (so its URL becomes http://catherineryanhoward.com/mybooks/resultsnottypical.) On some themes, these pages will immediately appear across the top or down the side of your home page, but don’t worry too much about that for now – we’re going to sort it using the custom menu feature.

I Have a Customized Menu

Some WP themes allow you to create a customized menu which could well be my favorite WP feature. By default, any pages you create will appear as links across the top or down the side of your homepage, i.e. create an “About” page and “About” will appear as a link under your header image, most likely. If you create a tiered stack of pages – for instance, an “About” page that has a “Contact” page on the next level down – these will appear in drop-down “sub-menus” under the main page link. But this has its limitations. You may not want every page you create to appear in a menu, and you may want to link to outside locations, e.g. for a “Mailing List” link.

The custom menu allows you to override the default menu your blog has created, and dictate exactly what goes across the top of your blog, and where your blog readers will go if you click on them.

This is mine:

  • ABOUT leads to my “About” page
  • MY BOOKS leads to my “My Books” page and underneath that are MOUSETRAPPED (leads to MousetrappedBook.com), BACKPACKED (leads to Backpackedbook.com), SELF-PRINTED (leads to SelfPrintedBook.com), RESULTS NOT TYPICAL (leads to my “Results Not Typical” page) and WHERE TO BUY THEM (leads to my “Where To Buy Them” page).
  • SELF-PRINTING leads to my “Self-Printing” page where I manually add links to all relevant posts
  • VIDEOS leads to my “Videos” page
  • NEWS leads to my “News” page
  • MAILING LIST leads to an external site, MailChimp.com, and the sign-up form for my newsletter, The Caffeinated News
  • CONTACT leads to my “Contact” page.

I Widget Witch Hunt

Anyone who has read Self-Printed knows how I feel about a sidebar of mismatched, multicolored, flashing and usually irrelevant trinkets that come in so many different shapes and sizes that no two are the same. If you haven’t read Self-Printed, how I feel about it is something like this:

Just like the rest of your blog, all sidebars and footers should look neat and tidy, and match. Filling them with multicolored widgets, images, graphics and the kitchen sink does not a tidy blog make. They are also extremely distracting. If your blog matches and is laid out well, what comes to the forefront? Your content which, let’s not forget, is what this is all about. If you have the sidebar equivalent of a Sixties UFO (i.e. flashing lights, if that wasn’t clear!), then all I’m going to do is stumble back, blinking, into my Twitter stream before I read any of what you’ve got to say.

So stop adding every little widget you find online in the same way a bird adds twigs to its nest. Well, actually, the bird is probably more discerning than the average widget-abusing blogger. Don’t just fill the space because it’s there. Think about what you should and shouldn’t have in your sidebars and footers. I’ll give you some clues.

You should have things like:

  • A comment policy
  • An e-mail subscription box
  • A hit counter (but ONLY one designed by WP, so it matches)
  • Links to blogs you like
  • Links to guest posts you’ve written
  • Links to popular posts or posts of a certain category
  • Your book’s covers linking to their Amazon listings or more information
  • Links to other social media accounts, e.g. Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  • Other things that are relevant, match and look good.

You shouldn’t have:

  • A badge from every forum, group, club and queue you’ve ever joined
  • The kitchen sink
  • Anything else.

And size does matter. When I insert book covers or other images into my sidebar, I always make sure they’re the same width across. The beady-eyed among you will notice that there is one widget that isn’t the same width as the others – the Facebook one – but it’s important to have a link to Facebook and there’s little I can do about it other than try to avoid looking at it because when I do I feel a twitch coming on.

And it’s RIGHT THERE (—>).

*Twitches*

[UPDATE: Angela left a comment that has changed my blogging world. Somehow I didn't notice that you could specify the preferred width of your Facebook widget, and so have now set it to 300 across, so it matches everything else. Thank you Angela!]

I even go so far as to make my own widgets. Do you see those little pink Post-Its in the sidebar? One links to my self-publishing posts, because that’s what a lot of people are looking for, another to book reviews because I didn’t have space for it my main menu and another is a reminder that I have a mailing list. Well, I made them. I used Pages (Apple’s word processor; MS Word works too), inserted an object that looked like a Post-It, changed the colors until they matched my blog, changed the fonts until they matched my blog and then took a screen shot and cropped it. Finally I inserted my screen shot into my sidebar as an image and then embedded the image with a link to the relevant place, e.g. the “Self-publishing info” Post-It/widget links to my “Self-Printed” page.

Yes, that’s how far I’ll go to keep my sidebar looking pretty. I stopped at making all my book covers pink, but I did think about it…

I Obsess About Cohesiveness

I’ve seen Bueno used on other blogs and I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that I come out in hives and develop a twitch in both eyes when I see other bloggers commit this cardinal sin of Theme Bueno:

Ugh! What are you DOING to that MENU?! Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!

It. Drives. Me. CRAAAAAAZY. Probably a lot more than it should, I acknowledge that much, but it does. Because it’s just all sorts of ugly wrong. Even just looking at that image makes my scalp itch, and my blog was only like that for a second.

(Yes, I was one of those girls who wouldn’t allow “baby” dolls, WWF wrestlers or Sylvanian Families figures into Barbie/Sindy games because they weren’t the right size. They weren’t the right size!)

Now I know that most of you reading this are rolling your eyes and thinking things like:

  • I can just about create new posts! Leave me alone, you technical wunderkind.
  • It’s what’s inside that counts. People aren’t going to read my blog just because it’s pretty, or not read it because it’s not. All that matters is that it’s readable.
  • My blog looks like a MySpace page circa 2006 meets an LSD trip meets Times Square and I got a trillion unique visitors a month. How do ya like them apples?
  • Isn’t blogging supposed to be fun? You seem to be sucking fun out of this at a rate of all per second.
  • That girl really needs the assistance of a mental health professional.

To which I say:

  • I have no special technical expertise. All I learned about Word Press I learned by doing and although it does seem a little tricky if you move here from Blogger, you’ll soon get used to it.
  • I’m going to hand you the greatest book ever written, slathered in dog poo. Enjoy! Because it’s what’s inside that counts, right?
  • I’m happy for you. But perhaps your readers are using Google Reader to shield their eyes. And after seeing your blog, I wouldn’t really be running off to buy your book.
  • I have plenty of fun with my blog. But never at the cost of being professional and organized.
  • You don’t know the half of it…

The point is, what are your aims here? Is it to become a professional writer? If it is, you need to start acting like one, and a professional writer would either create a cohesive, well laid out blog or blogsite, or have one designed for them. And would a web designer come back with a design that had orphaned menu links, MySpace-like widgets and a scheme that included every color in the rainbow? If they did I think you’d double-check their credentials.

If you were sending your manuscript to an agent, would you bend all the corners, flip half the pages over the wrong way, handwrite the synopsis in scented ink, leave off page numbers and then smoke a cigar over it, dropping some ash into the envelope so the odor lingers? No. You’d want to put your best foot forward, because you want to give yourself every possible chance of appearing like a committed, professional individual who knows what’s required of them and is out to make a great first impression.

So why do you take an entirely different attitude with your blog? It’s exactly the same thing – you want your blog readers to come back, or maybe even check out some of your work. You want to start acting the part of the professional writer, so that one day you might really become one. And you want to stop making my eyes bleed, because it’s distracting me from the great blog posts you’re writing.

13 Responses to “Does My Blog Look Big in This?”

  1. alisonwells October 31, 2011 at 15:10 #

    Really helpful and brilliant post. I know that sounds sycophantic but at least it doesn’t sound psychophantic. I have struggled with choosing and making the most of my blog and there are plenty of glitches and things I want to add but this post will definitely help.

    • catherineryanhoward November 3, 2011 at 22:15 #

      Sycophantic is fine by me! :-)

      Glad to hear my dressed-up rant will be useful!

  2. Angela Watson October 31, 2011 at 16:07 #

    I, too, obsessed over and bemoan the widgets on my site that aren’t exactly the same width. But good news–you can change the width (and height) of your FB widget. It’s in the html code you copied and pasted–just change the dimensions and it will still work fine.

    • catherineryanhoward November 3, 2011 at 22:16 #

      Angela, you are my new best friend. I changed the width to the same as my other widgets – look how pretty my Facebook widget looks now! THANK YOU!

      (I’ll sleep better tonight!)

  3. Lindsay Edmunds November 1, 2011 at 14:45 #

    This post finally got me to do what I have needed to do for a long time: create a custom menu and AT LAST post some links in two categories: Relax Your Mind and Writers and Their Books. Your blog is there.

  4. Debbie Young May 4, 2012 at 07:33 #

    Totally agree with all of this – I love WordPress and still can’t believe we can get such a good service for free! Will share this post to convince others too! My blog’s here, if anyone wants to see another example – http:://www.youngbyname.wordpress.com

    • catherineryanhoward May 4, 2012 at 17:43 #

      Thanks Debbie! Yeah, I love WordPress. Their free service is really amazing.

  5. James T Kelly May 4, 2012 at 22:31 #

    Great post, Catherine. I’m with you, everything needs to look right because, when it does, people will spend less time looking at what’s wrong and more time at my content! I’m still wrestling with the design on my site but I’m getting there! Your post and your blog has made me all the more determined to get it done. Thanks!

  6. Rebecca Douglass October 28, 2012 at 19:39 #

    And might I conclude that I cannot (alas) do this stuff (which I’ve been admiring) with my Blogger blog? I bought the domain name. . . Can I transfer it?

    Damn, I wish I’d known what I was doing when I started!

  7. stephlaurajones January 29, 2013 at 16:39 #

    Thanks so much for this Catherine. How to create a mailing list and how to add pages off my additional pages has been something I’ve been struggling to do for ages, so this post has helped me so much. Also you’ve made me realise how I need to decide on an identity for my blog, even if it is just a colour scheme, as at the moment it’s a bit undecided.

  8. Side Quest Publications September 18, 2013 at 19:46 #

    I’ve got exactly two pictures showing up somewhere among my widgets–one on my FaceBook link, and the other is the word count widget from NaNoWriMo.
    Everything else is text-based, whether it’s a randomly sorted short list of affiliate links (books I recommend via Amazon and Smashwords), websites I’m part of/have contributed to, various ways to follow me, a link to my eBay listing(s), or anything else.

    My problem with the widgets is less their width or possible clashing, but their LENGTH, especially when I use them the way I do.
    Two text widgets alone, with only a handful of sentences (like a to-do list), can take up a lot of space.
    Even on the main page, it looks like I have a lot; on some of my shorter posts, where the widgets are the only reason the page keeps scrolling, they seem impossibly long.
    I want to start cutting out enough stuff that I can convert my “category” drop-down list back to a visible-all-the-time list, without making it look cluttered… but I’m not entirely certain what details are worth removing.

    Maybe I’ll try adding another couple of pages under a “random stuff” heading with those details and take the text widgets out entirely.
    The next question is where to go from there.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Do You Have An Unanswered Question About Self-Publishing? « Catherine, Caffeinated - January 29, 2013

    [...] well, um, blogging, as suggested by Katharine, Arlene and others, a kind of follow-on to Does My Blog Look Big In This?, which was really just about [...]

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